L.A.'s supergraphics plight

Los Angeles city officials may be too witless to notice illegal billboards, or too scared to challenge the people who put them up, or too distracted by the promises of funding for pet projects to say no to requests for exceptions to city signage laws, or too inept to defend the urban environment in court. But for heaven's sake, even they can't possibly be too paralyzed to immediately cite those building owners and advertisers who believe that it's more important to stretch their garish displays over high-rise windows than to protect the safety and quality of life of tenants.

As The Times reported Tuesday, some landlords and advertisers have joined forces to turn buildings into billboards. They're trying to turn the Westside, downtown and other parts of the city into a nightmare of product placement and commercial come-ons. But that's almost standard operating procedure in today's Los Angeles. No, the truly outrageous aspect of this latest assault is that the plastic or vinyl supergraphics are blocking sunlight from offices and, worse, preventing emergency access or exit.

The hi-jinks of billboard companies and the epic ineptitude of the City Council, the city attorney's office and city inspectors in regulating them have made Los Angeles a tragicomic battleground over signage. The city bans billboards, then makes exceptions, and the companiessue, claiming their 1st Amendment rights are being infringed. The city gets cold feet and settles -- allowing billboard companies huge new inroads into the cityscape, with new digital signs that distract drivers and flash all night long into the windows of people just trying to enjoy their formerly tranquil homes. The City Council adopts a moratorium -- spurring guerrilla signsters to slap supergraphics, posters, anything on the sides of buildings so they can take their place in line for the next cowardly city settlement that awards new plums to lawbreaking companies. All the while, City Council members float plans for new sign districts -- actually courting billboards at the same time they claim to oppose them.

But that whole circus becomes a sideshow when compared with the absolute moral bankruptcy of the latest pirate tactic. Offices once bathed in sunshine or with beautiful vistas calculated into their lease rates are now shrouded in stretched vinyl advertising. Even leaving aside the ugliness, tenants would be unable to open a window in case of a fire. Firefighters would be unable to enter. Or they at least would be slowed by the layer of advertising.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has direct authority over city departments, so despite the city attorney's clueless settlements and the City Council's bumbling policies, it's Villaraigosa who has the power to act. He should, without delay.

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